The Shortfall in Science and Technology

March 1, 2000

Over the past 10 years, the Air Force has gone from first to last among the armed services in the amount it spends on Science and Technology.

Since Fiscal 1989, the Air Force budget for research and advanced development has fallen by more than half.

By 2005, the portion of Air Force total obligation authority that is allocated to Science and Technology drops almost 30 percent below its level in 1993.

These are alarming trends for a service that hangs its hat on technological superiority.

The situation was brought to public attention in January in a special report, “Shortchanging the Future: Air Force Research and Development Demands Investment,” published by the Air Force Association’s Science and Technology Committee.

“Given a decade of declining S&T budgets,” the report said, “the most promising technologies, such as directed energy, miniaturized munitions, new electronics countermeasures techniques, unmanned combat aerial vehicles, and improved materials for space power, may not be ready to be incorporated into Air Force systems to be fielded through 2020.”

The findings were presented to the news media, Congressional staff, and the defense industry Jan. 13 by two retired Air Force four-star generals, Lawrence A. Skantze, the committee chairman, and John Michael Loh.

“Technology as we know it today is not going to be anything we can hold to our own,” Skantze said. Today’s advantages, such as stealth, will disperse. Staying in the forefront of military preparedness, he said, demands “a robust investment in S&T” to “push the state of the art and the barriers to create technology leverage.”

Loh said that technology is the “backbone” of the Air Force. “Among all of the services, the Air Force achieves its core competencies and its mission capability from advanced technology, not from manpower and mass.”

In a statement issued shortly after the Jan. 13 briefing, the Air Force said it shared AFA’s concern and agreed that the decline in Science and Technology spending must be reversed.

Short-Range Perspective

Time and again in recent years, the armed forces have pulled money out of their investment accounts to pay for the increased pace of everyday operations.

In such a budget environment, Skantze said, “your focus becomes more and more short term. Your vision becomes limited to, in some cases, weeks, as opposed to months or years, and so relevance of S&T expenditures tends to be skewed toward what would work in the near term.”

Science and Technology initiatives, on the other hand, often take decades to explore, mature, and pay off.

For example, Skantze said, today’s Airborne Laser program is the direct result of research in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Air Force “put money into things like algorithmic jitter to be able to compensate for atmospheric diffraction–and it took a long time to find a way to do that.”

From stealth aircraft to precision guided munitions, the systems that won the Gulf War in 1991 so spectacularly were the product of investments in Science and Technology that in some cases stretched back for 30 years.

The Air Force Association has consistently rejected the argument, often heard, that the only possible way to fund Air Force S&T programs vital to the nation’s interest is to shift money out of other critical programs.

“I don’t view this as a trade-off,” Loh said. “I think the Air Force has every right, based on its performance, commitments, and obligations over the past few years to request additional funding for this. It should not come at the expense of other programs.”

A complicating factor on priorities is that the Air Force Science and Technology program has not had a top-level advocate since the demise of Air Force Systems Command in 1992, Skantze said. “You have a major general who runs the Air Force labs, and he essentially puts together the basic S&T budget. But as it comes up through the system from there, you do not find what I would call card-carrying R&D­S&T advocates at the highest level.”

In the fierce competition for resources in the Pentagon, Research and Development often loses out to other requirements that have stronger support.

In the days when he headed Air Force Systems Command, Skantze said, “the relationship between the user and developer was pull and push. We were in the business of identifying and pushing technology, and the user was in the business of pulling the technology he thought would pay off.”

Speaking from the floor during the issue briefing, John J. Welch Jr.–former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition and a member of the AFA committee that produced the report–agreed that the valuable push-pull relationship had been lost. He also noted that the Air Force Research Laboratory has not hired a researcher since 1991.

Pattern of Decline

The report defined the Science and Technology program as the Air Force does, the total of program elements 6.1 (basic research), 6.2 (applied research), and 6.3 (advanced development) in the defense budget.

Among the main findings of the report were these.

  • At the end of the Gulf War, the Air Force was the clear leader among the services in Science and Technology investment. Today, it is in last place, trailing not only the Navy and the Army but also the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
  • After the figures are adjusted to eliminate the effect of inflation, Air Force spending on S&T has declined from $2.69 billion in 1989 to $1.18 billion today, a drop of 56 percent.
  • As recently as Fiscal 1993, the Air Force spent 2.3 percent of its total obligation authority on Science and Technology. It is down to 1.81 percent this year, headed toward 1.65 percent in Fiscal 2005.

“In prior fiscal years, the Air Force tried to cut R&D as much as 50 percent and only restored the funding when it was directed to do so by OSD [the Office of the Secretary of Defense],” the report said. It also said that “in FY 1997, the Air Force made a poorly coordinated attempt to eliminate graduate studies at the Air Force Institute of Technology.”

The Future Years Defense Program projects that between 1999 and 2005 the Air Force will divert nearly $3 billion out of its Science and Technology accounts for other spending purposes, such as procurement and operations and maintenance of the force.

The report said that “in the latest episode of programmatic manipulation,” the Air Force took Space Based Laser and Discoverer II programs out of the engineering development category and pulled them back into S&T status. This created “the impression that research into space was increasing, but [required] at the same time that the existing S&T budget cough up the funding–$94 million in FY 2000, $131 million in FY 2001, and more to follow-to keep the two programs going.”

The pattern raises questions about how much of a priority Research and Development is for the Air Force.

Private Sector Doesn’t Do It

“The Air Force is not alone,” the report said. “The Department of Defense as a whole has also consciously reduced S&T funding in the mistaken belief that industry would fill in the gap.”

Although total US investment in Research and Development continues to increase, little of it is of military use, the report said.

“A popular theme these days is that military S&T is not necessary because the private sector will invest and power the S&T engine,” Loh said. Advancements in microelectronics and telecommunications are often cited to support that claim.

“In fact, other than those two areas of technology, microelectronics and telecommunications and the software associated with them, I find it hard to discover another technical area with military significance where the private sector is willing to undertake the investment to bring technology from birth to maturity.”

Loh also recalled “a lot of excitement about the private sector being able to find a cheap way to orbit. Easy access to space, going from about $10,000 a pound to $1,000 a pound. You had all these venture capitalists pushing money into the space assets of the world and all these great ideas where we were going to get two or three stages into orbit. I don’t see many of them hanging around much anymore.”

The report cited a number of critical technologies that “are perceived as not being supported by industry.” Among them are electronic hardening, ballistic missile protection, and defenses against chemical and biological warfare.

The level of overall federal funding for aerospace Research and Development today is about half what it was in 1987. Non-federal aerospace research over that same period has neither increased nor diminished significantly in the past 20 years.

Invest for the Long Term

The report said, “The Air Force needs to strengthen institutionally the role of technology advocacy within the service.”

It called on senior Air Force leaders to “tolerate and even embrace failure as an integral part of the technology development process,” noting that numerous R&D projects from the 1960s failed, but the ones that succeeded gave the Air Force the capabilities it has today.

The report cites hypersonic flight and supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) engines as technologies that have been “pushed aside” in the squeeze between short-term relevance and long-term value.

It concluded that “senior Air Force leaders need to reverse the S&T funding decline and invest in a stable, robust, balanced R&D base that is not necessarily tied to emerging weapon system programs but that does include long-term S&T investment.”

The Air Force Association Science and Technology Committee

Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze, USAF (Ret.), chairman

Edward C. Aldridge Jr.

Krzysztof Burhardt

James W. Evatt

Marty Faga

Gen. John Michael Loh, USAF (Ret.)

Gen. Robert T. Marsh, USAF (Ret.)

Gen. Thomas S. Moorman Jr., USAF (Ret.)

Lt. Gen. George K. Muellner, USAF (Ret.)

George A. Paulikas

James M. Sinnett

Maj. Gen. Jasper A. Welch Jr., USAF (Ret.)

John J. Welch Jr.

Find the Shortchanging the Future report on the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies website.